A Dynastic Scion Meets the People

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 1, 2008

KUMHARPADA, India -- Hundreds of barefoot villagers left their chores and ran toward the giant cloud of dust blown by a descending helicopter. When the dust settled, a young bespectacled man with dimples and a shy smile stepped out in crisp white tunic and pants, waving to the people. The excited villagers immediately rushed to touch him, creating a near-stampede and sending his security team into a tizzy.

"Long live Rahul Gandhi!" they chanted in the scorching summer heat, clapping as he made his way to talk to lower-caste potters.

Rahul Gandhi, 37, general secretary of India's ruling Congress party, is used to such frenzied welcomes when he shows up at far-flung, impoverished villages across India. He is, after all, the newest heir apparent of a political dynasty that ranks as India's most powerful -- one that has produced three generations of prime ministers, including Indira Gandhi, his late grandmother.

But these days, Rahul Gandhi wants to turn privilege and pedigree into an opportunity to learn. Over the past few months, he has traveled the country to see its myriad problems firsthand, from grinding poverty to social inequality.

"There are two parts of India. One part is the urban India that is growing very fast, and everybody knows that," Gandhi said recently at a crowded news conference in the rural town of Kanker in the central part of the country. "The other is the forgotten part of India. Their voices must not be brushed aside. As a politician, my responsibility is to come and listen to them."

The Indian media call this Gandhi's "Discovery of India" tour. His political allies, for their part, say his travels are a window into the shaping of India's future leader. And political pundits say his journeys are an acknowledgment that mere lineage is no longer enough in India's 21st-century political landscape.

"Rahul Gandhi is trying to change the grammar of politics from dynasty to democracy. He feels that unless he really muddies himself, he will not be seen as a politician. It is an initiation rite," said Shiv Visvanathan, a social scientist at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology. "For the new generation of Indians, it is not enough to just have the genealogy. He needs to be a brand, too. He walks around the villages, talks to the poorest, eats with them. He is creating a visual sense of leadership."

News and images from Rahul Gandhi's trips are hungrily consumed by many Indians for whom the young scion is almost like a pinup figure. His every move is caught on camera, whether he is watching a film or attending a music concert. When he tours the nation, young men and women throng his meetings and fall over each other to get a glimpse. Women marvel at his light skin, a standard of beauty in India, and his twin dimples.

"He has a very good smile. I like his dimples," gushed Dhantari Tamu, 23, as her husband nodded in agreement. Tamu was among 50 village council leaders who had come to Jagdalpur, a town in the central state of Chhattisgarh, to speak to Gandhi about issues such as electricity and schools in their area. "He listened to us patiently. He even sat on the floor with us and not on the dais like other leaders."

The charismatic and glamorous Gandhis have always found a special place in this country's imagination. Indians associate the dynasty, not unlike the Kennedys, with privilege, mystique and ultimately tragedy.

Gandhi's great-grandfather was independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. His grandmother and his father, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, also served as prime ministers before being assassinated. The twin tragedies forced Rahul Gandhi to lead a cocoonlike existence, and to be tutored at home as a young man.

He won a seat in Parliament in 2004 and is now seeking to widen his party's support in the run-up to the polls next year. His Italian-born mother, Sonia Gandhi, the powerful president of the party, is grooming him to be its future prime ministerial candidate.

In a nation where three-fourths of the population is younger than 35, Gandhi's team consists of young professionals and techies, many of whom have studied in the United States. He combines slick PowerPoint presentations with roadshows. He has opened membership in his party by accepting applications via text messages, Internet forms, e-mails and postcards. And while he is passionate about geopolitics, he also enjoyed the cheeky movie "Borat."

During his travels, Gandhi often makes unscheduled stops at villages, giving the slip not just to the news media but also to his own party members, who wait to greet him with garlands and choreographed events. Sometimes he even sleeps over at a villager's home.

"He does not want any intermediary from the party when he connects with the people. He wants to know the truth directly," said Ajit Jogi, a local Congress party leader in Chhattisgarh state.

Some in the party say they feel alienated by Gandhi's tendency to be secretive about his visits. Opposition parties say he's relying on gimmicks to grab headlines. He typically declines interview requests from the news media in New Delhi -- he declined to comment for this article -- and instead invites reporters to come see him on the road.

"These are flashy gimmicks, but the country is too complicated to fall for such stunts," Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said in a telephone interview. "Thousands of politicians are doing exactly what Rahul is doing. But it is unfortunate that they can never hope to reach the top in a party that is run like a family fiefdom."

Personal loyalty and sycophancy toward the members of the revered family have traditionally boosted the fortunes of many in the Congress party. But the young Gandhi frowns upon a culture of adulation.

On his birthday recently, hundreds of party workers showed up at his gate with a giant birthday cake. They waited for hours for a glimpse of their hero, but Gandhi did not come out to indulge them. Disappointed, they cut the cake on the road and sang out wishes to him.

Some in Gandhi's party say he's not in a hurry to catapult himself onto the grand stage and prefers to climb the ladder gradually. "Rahul is extremely prudent to know that it is futile to bite off more than he can chew now," said Milind Deora, 31, a lawmaker from the Congress party.

Meanwhile, Gandhi's meetings with lower-caste Indians, sometimes called "untouchables," provoked a political opponent recently to say that Gandhi took a bath with a "special soap to purify himself" upon returning home. Gandhi laughed off the comment at a recent stop on his tour, displaying his muddied white kurta, a long Indian tunic. "Does this look like it is washed with a special soap?" he asked.

On a trip to the southern state of Karnataka, he was caught off guard when a female journalist asked if he was aware that women find him charming.

"What can I say?" he said, blushing. "I appreciate the attention women pay to me and the fact that they think I am charming. I am humbled by their observation. But I don't get carried away. As I am on a mission, I stay focused."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company